What Makes a Leader: Power 81

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 Life Time Fitness’ SVP of HR explains how he developed his leadership practice based on a classic Chinese text.

jesselmwmalOver the last 4 years I have developed a Leadership Practice called Power 81.  This practice is based on 81 verses, adapted from the Tao Te Ching, that when applied to leadership can assist you to tap into an amazing power.   Not a power of position, which leadership implies, like that of a politician, influential figure or executive.   Rather, power like the sun, ubiquitous across the planet, free for anyone to access.  Imagine having this intrinsic power as a leader, making available indelible energy to grow people, teams and companies while also recharging you to endure in your work.  This is the secret to great success, mastering your leadership work from the inside so the job outside can be executed with care, creating a path of inclusion and leaving a trail of life behind it.  It becomes not just about getting the job done at all cost but getting the job done with sustainable excellence,  making the universe larger, people’s lives richer and the world itself, a better place.

Here’s an example,

Power Verse 17 ∞The Leader’s Way is to work without self-interest, to leave no trace, when the work is finished the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

This verse speaks about servant leadership in its highest form.  The Wise Leader guides and builds their team in a way that shows no trace of their effort and empowers the team to accomplish more than they ever thought possible.  To be a servant is the core of Leadership Power.

Think about the energy behind life itself.  Imagine a good farmer sowing his seed in the spring time, the fresh smell of newly tilled soil, the hope for a good season of growth.  Summer comes with rain, sun and warmth while the farmer works the field, pulling weeds, protecting young sprouts and hoping for the good growing season to last.   The sprouts turn into mature plants as the season turns cool and the harvest begins.  The farmer’s toil accelerates and the barn starts to fill from the bounty of the field.   In the end, after all is complete, the field is put to bed for the winter.  The first moisture for the next season falls as snow resting on the stocks left in the field renewing the soil for another spring.  The farmer and his family rest feeling a sense of well earned contentment thinking, “Look what we did ourselves.” All the while the energy of life, the sun, rain and soil just does what it does, creating the context for the farmer’s work, the supreme good without trying and asking for no credit.  The Wise Leader is the same, offering the energy behind the work, while the team feels the accomplishment.

“Even after all this time

The sun never says to the earth

“You owe me.”

Look what happens with a love like that

It lights the whole sky”  -Hafiz

Focus Thought:  A Wise Leader works without self-interest leaves no trace, when the work is finished the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

This Power 81 example illustrates that a successful leader blends into the background while also accomplishing monumental tasks.  For most leaders this skill does not come naturally.  Often ego steps in and demands external forces like controlling rather than delegating, demanding rather than inspiring and exposing rather than uplifting.  The inner work requires a leader to let go of ego, realizing that the greater path exists in serving the greater good of all.  This humility and support from a Wise Leader preserves employees and cultures, sustains integrity and fosters durable accomplishments.  In the end it is not about becoming perfect but healthy, not in control but self regulation, not master of all but servant of many.  A Wise Leader in action, powering their world.


Jess Elmquist is the EVP of HR at Life Time Fitness. He was featured in issue 9 of Forefront Magazine.

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